Dr. Sandra Piesik is an architect and researcher specializing in cultural research and technological innovation. She is the author of ‘Arish: Palm Leaf Architecture’ (2012) and the General Editor of ‘Vernacular Buildings: A New World Survey’ (2016). We had the opportunity to speak to her about her work and ideologies about architectural practice in the UAE.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your association with the UAE
I am an architect and I came to the UAE in 2004 to build sky scrapers. During my time here I got curious about how indigenous people built before modernization. I wanted to know how they combated extreme climate in the harsh desert. The Arish journey began as a curiosity that led me to pursue my doctoral research on date palm construction technology.
Can you please share details about projects that you have worked on in the UAE.
The research for my book had two aspects to it. One was to document existing building typologies that implemented Arish techniques within the country. I travelled throughout the country, on every single road, and mapped every palm leaf structure possible. I divided this into geographical chunks and ended with about 20,000 photos! On my journey I had the chance to interact with local families and understand their perspective. I was most touched by the stories of the grandparents of today’s Emarati families. They are losing their heritage at an unprecedented pace. It’s a society in transition.
The second part of the research was technology transfer of date palm leaf architecture. We commenced tests in Al Ain in 2009 and constructed great many mock ups with the help of former ADACH. In addition, in response to the invitation from Liwa Municipality we reconstructed an arish house in Liwa Oasis. In Liwa Oasis, the women would build the houses. Women from Al Mazrouei tribe and the entire local community helped in this process, it was a fascinating experience. When we finally built the house in Liwa, I found that it was about 23 degrees cooler than the outside temperature. It has been a long journey of transferring knowledge from craftsmen, local residents, tests, structural engineers to the lab and back on the ground. I worked on building mock-ups from 2009-2015 before coming back to London to continue working on technology development and transfer in the global context. Eventually, we were given a site in Al Ain to build a date palm structure.
What place do you think vernacular concepts have in architecture globally?
We have been living on this earth for over 200 centuries. From then until the industrial revolution, every society in every part of the world has developed ways to live in harmony with nature by using natural materials. We have never had to deal with climate change. Vernacular techniques offer us a fundamental understanding of climate and resources. Developing technology that is within the context of the available climate and resources is the basis of sustainability. Since the industrial revolution, we now have more buildings that look similar giving almost every place a similar character architecturally.
The role of vernacular is to go back and see how things were done before and question how we could adopt it today. We should go back to the fundamentals of understanding how to build in a sustainable way in the context of ecosystems, resources and local cultures. Re-engaging with the circular economy principles of the past may help in finding economic model for these principles.
What do you think is our biggest challenge when it comes to designing for environmental sustainability in the UAE?
I think the biggest challenge is willingness to invest in research and development that will allow scientists and professionals to develop solutions that can be adapted to modern use. Funding is probably the biggest reason this isn’t going forward. We need government organizations to promote the innovation of these technologies. Our perception of what is modern plays an important role. We may need to change the way we look at modernization.
What are your thoughts about the relationship between the past and the present in terms of the built environment?
It’s inevitable that we need to engage with understanding the past so that we can develop workable solutions in the future. There is no questioning that baseline for sustainable development in the future lies in understanding the past. But location is the key in this context. This is a global problem well recognized by the United Nations as well. Knowledge and technology transfer is critical for sustainable development in the future.
What do you think are some of the traditional or cultural aspects of the community that are missing in urban spaces or public spaces today?
When you analyze the typologies of traditional towns in the UAE, the social structure reflects the tribal structure of the society. Historically, urban typologies reflected this social structure. Families belonging to a single tribe would live in the same area. Even today people still live this way. The role of traditional community spaces such as the Majlis is superbly important as this is where people come to meet. I think there have been many attempts of creating a community space around this notion such as in Masdar City. But something that you build for the local community may not work for the transitory expat population. I think the real question is to look into how these traditional community spaces can be adapted in modern buildings.
What is your favorite place in the UAE?
I absolutely love Liwa Oasis. Among others places Al Ain is also my favorite.